Parents and guardians of Montgomery County Public Schools students will have three weeks, beginning Wednesday, to decide whether they want their children to return to school buildings part-time when face-to-face instruction resumes.
On Tuesday, the school board voted unanimously to “tentatively approve the framework” for the MCPS reopening plan, which proposes a gradual return to school buildings beginning in January. The caveat is that the plan relies heavily on improved COVID-19 metrics, which have been trending poorly in recent weeks.
The school board’s vote came on the same day Montgomery County officials reinstated more stringent restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
On Wednesday, MCPS will release a “preference survey,” to all MCPS families, intended to determine how many want their children to participate in face-to-face instruction. The responses will help determine which and how many schools will open, the frequency of in-person classes and how to provide transportation.
Families’ responses to the survey will be counted as their commitment for their children for the spring semester, should in-person learning be allowed, but they can change their preference later. If a family initially chose to remain in an all-virtual model, it can switch to the hybrid model only if space is available.
The survey will be available until Dec. 3.
If the pandemic worsens, the plans could change, school district leaders said.
But some community members have criticized MCPS’ reopening plan, saying it is already too restrictive and the desired metrics are impossible to achieve.
Education Week last week characterized the school district’s plan as “one of the most cautious stances toward reopening” in the country.
The phased return to MCPS buildings will be based upon two health metrics: the county’s average daily increase in cases over 14 days, and the two-week average of cases per 100,000 people.
The MCPS guidelines also require the county’s test positivity rate to remain below 5%.
On Tuesday, the county’s seven-day average of cases per 100,000 residents was 18.1. At that rate, all MCPS students would remain in a virtual-only model, according to MCPS’ health matrix.
Over the past two weeks, Montgomery County has averaged 163 new cases of COVID-19 each day, another measure that would keep all students in a virtual-only model, according to the MCPS matrix.
Because of the increase in cases, the County Council on Tuesday voted to reduce the maximum capacity at gyms, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, religious establishments and retail establishments from 50% to 25%.
The county is again prohibiting the sale of alcohol in restaurants after 10 p.m.
For schools, some are skeptical reopening will happen at all this academic year, particularly because some health professionals project the pandemic will worsen as the country delves deeper into cold and flu season. Flu season generally runs through May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles has emphasized repeatedly that all cases of COVID-like illness in school buildings have to be treated like positive cases until a negative test result proves otherwise.
If a student shows up to school with a runny nose and cough — common symptoms of both a cold and the coronavirus — those around them could be asked to quarantine, or the school could be forced to close, until the county Health Department rules out COVID-19 as a cause.
Gayles has said he expects the frequency of such investigations to increase in the coming months.
As of Tuesday, 120 MCPS staff members had reported testing positive for the virus, according to school district data. The data do not indicate how many of the staff members had been working on school sites.
‘We absolutely will have to hire more people’
In MCPS, in-person learning could include teachers conducting both virtual and in-person classes simultaneously.
A staff portal will also be available for teachers to indicate if they have health conditions, as defined by the federal government, that put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Those staff members could be excused from teaching in-person classes.
Smith said there will not be a “preference survey,” like the one for families, for staff members to choose whether to continue with only virtual classes.
In July, when MCPS thought a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning would be feasible in the fall semester, the plan was met with strong pushback from educators.
Many said they feared there would not be an adequate supply of cleaning materials and protective equipment. Others also said the COVID-19 metrics were too high.
At the time, Montgomery County was averaging around 80 new cases per day.
On Tuesday, board member Pat O’Neill asked if MCPS was optimistic or pessimistic that it can meet staffing needs for in-person learning.
MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said, “We are planning as if we’re pessimistic.”
Smith said the district “absolutely will have to hire more people” to accommodate a hybrid model of in-person and remote education. Some positions could be funded through federal money provided to the school district through coronavirus relief funds, Smith said.
School board member Karla Silvestre urged MCPS to consider education an “essential business” and to “keep an open mind about what our new reality is going to have to be and what we can do.” It is important to avoid “full shutdowns” of education, like the two-week emergency closure of all Maryland schools when the pandemic began in March, she said.
Some school board members expressed concern about basing the reopening plan on countywide metrics, because Montgomery County is so expansive, covering 507 square miles.
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski asked if MCPS will consider reopening some schools in areas with low COVID-19 rates if the county as a whole does not meet the benchmarks, to avoid delaying reopening efforts. Smith said “best practices” are to use county averages.
Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight said using a phased approach to bringing students back into buildings gives the district “flexibility depending on what the metrics may show.” She said starting with smaller groups helps manage the virus.
More than 500 people have submitted feedback about the MCPS reopening plan through an online form, MCPS’ Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner said. The common themes, according to Turner, include:
• The need to prioritize the return of high school juniors and seniors
• Families’ desire to return to in-person instruction soon
• Families who do not want to return to any in-person instruction until there is a vaccine
• Wanting more information about what in-person instruction will look like
• How teachers with young children could return to face-to-face instruction if their children are learning from home.
A question-and-answer session about the MCPS reopening plan is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. It will be streamed on the school district website.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com